Friendship and Caring

(Last modified September 2010)

With the tensions generated by demographic changes, the transformation of the welfare state, and the reality of new gender relations, friendship is increasingly becoming a vehicle of social hopes. This finding is the motive for the research project on "Friendship and Care".

Today, the abandoned look to their friends for the reliable warmth that fragile partnerships only offer in a fragmentary form, the lonely look friends for the social proximity no longer generated by kinship systems when the fertility rate is 1.4 and the aged seek the respect not shown by a welfare system designed only to help people survive. Three individuals in Germany exemplify these high expectations. The former mayor of Bremen, Henning Scherf, advocates a model of cohousing for older citizens, in which friends grow old together. Scherf believes this is the only humane way to meet the challenges of the looming nursing shortage. Social scientist Meinhard Miegel argues that we need to adjust in the future to a world in which immaterial values take precedence over material interests because prosperity will decline in our society. One of the key immaterial values that make life satisfying beyond prospects of consumption and ownership is a circle of friends. The psychiatrist Horst Petri writes in one of his popular advice books that friendship is a survival strategy in the face of scarce and fragile bonds. But is it really that easy with friendship? Can friends actually meet all the expectations they are confronted with? Is the social complexity of friendship networks perhaps an almost insurmountable obstacle? And don’t most of the pitfalls of life encountered in liquid times apply to friendship as well?

The project drew on these expectations and hopes to investigate discourse on "amitié" and examine the way friends live and practice their friendships. In this way, normative appeals could be formulated as answerable questions and uncertainties could be addressed with a survey of possibilities. Consequently, the assumption guiding the project was that friendship is being rapidly transformed from a loose relationship, in which questions of care were redundant, to a socially sustainable and publicly recognized social form that provided specific care services.

Research design and Methods

The "Friendship and Care" project relied on methodological pluralism. Four methodologically controlled approaches were applied: a) discourse analysis of advice books on friendship; b) hermeneutic and content analyses of problem-centered, biographical interviews; c) a study of the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy; and d) secondary statistical analyses of existing social surveys.

The twenty advice books analyzed were published in two different decades (1990‑1993 and 2002‑2006). They were investigated to see what was regarded as general knowledge about friendship and how the normative conception of friendship had changed since the early 1990s.

Additionally, problem-centered, biographical interviews were conducted with twenty-seven people from nine friendship networks. Confidential talks focusing on central issues were designed to generate discourse on practices of care-giving among friends that was contextualized within the interviewees’ normative concepts. Analysis of the interviews allowed the reconstruction of various media for caring for friends, such as money, actions, or the body.

An analysis of the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy in the period from 1949 to 1975 provided information on of the actual practice of confidential communication between friends.

Information from the fourth source flowed gradually into the study and came from representative statistical surveys such as the Family Survey of the German Youth Institute (DJI) and studies by the ISSP (International Social Survey Program). Secondary analysis sought to answer diverse quantitative questions, such as the prevalence of friendship-centered personal support networks or the frequency of money transfers within friendships.


Two interlocking processes were observed: first, an increasingly significant role of friendship in social care, and second and in a certain sense on the other side of the coin, the growing importance of care in friendships. The first phenomena could be observed chiefly in the social constructions of partner relationships, and to a certain extent in parent-child relationships. The semantics of friendship has hugely expanded again after being consistently confined for several centuries to non-sexual, non-contractual, and non-familial relationships. This shift is visible in three areas: at the institutional level, in public discourse, and in private practices.

The welfare state identifies the smallest social unit that can be expected to ensure subsidiary care-giving as a voluntary association; the members of a household that offers reciprocal economic support is defined as such an association by the "mutual intent [or will] ... to provide for each other" as stated in German law (Article 7 of Volume II of the Social Security Code). Such households are thus closer to the semantics of friendship than of marriage. Viewed historically, marriage has only accidentally at times been a voluntary association, whereas this has always been the case for amitié. When attention is turned to public discourse on friendship, an isomorphic construction of marriage and marriage-like situations seems to emerge; according to popular conceptions found in advice books, a romantic partnership is similar to a friendship, but with sexual activity. Interviewees often expressed similar views and/or lived in social forms that corresponded exactly to this description. Many respondents used the semantics of amitié to justify their chosen way of life. People who complain about their partners’ behavior or explain what holds their relationships together today tend to use vocabulary symbolic of friendship; the old world of care, as once provided by the family or a spouse, has shifted into the realm of friendship.

The second shift directly concerns the social form of friendship. At the level of normative discourse, we can observe the increasing feminization of the publicly communicated ideal of friendship. The caring friendship of women, not the heroic friendship of male bonding, today sets the standard for successful friendships. The feminization of the ideal of friendship brings with it a greater emphasis of care within friendship. Public discourse today increasingly regards male and especially female friends as close allies and intimates, sometimes even as lifelong companions, and not so much as frivolous acquaintances or practical allies. The changing image of friendship corresponds to the increase in the importance of close, trusting, and emotionally charged friendship at the practical level. The DJI Family Survey has revealed that more and more people in Germany between the ages of 18 and 55 have at least one friend with whom they discuss important things or to whom they feel emotionally attached. A “proper” personal support network today includes at least one close and intimate friendship. Friendship has become more caring.

Do these findings—that is, the increasingly caring nature of friendship and care that is appreciably more a matter of ‘friendship’—mean that the expectations and hopes placed on friendships, as formulated at the start of this paper, are justified? The results of this study give some cause for skepticism. Compared with previous methods for organizing care through the family, partnerships, and the welfare state, amitié is the more challenging option. Living within a circle of friends is not easier than living within a marriage, not less stressful than within a family, and not more secure than being under the thumb of an increasingly paternalistic welfare state. On the contrary, it calls for complicated logistics, the ability to tolerate ambiguities and biases, and the acceptance of a life without a finalsocial destination.

So what is possible when we assess friendships with the criterion of conventional care-giving? Applying this yardstick to conventional caring practices among friends, there seem to be average prospects of realizing friendship-centered styles of life that rely on multiple redundancies to offer practical assistance, emotional security, and a certain level of financial support. But for the time being, the fundamental prerequisite for living with a circle of friends will remain the ability to care for oneself—in the sense of concern for one’s own body.